Jessica Iredale in Proenza Schouler photographed by Ralph Mecke in New York for FAZ Magazin September 2017 cover story.

Depesche der Mode

Our new critic and native New Yorker Jessica Iredale on what’s going on and wrong with the American fashion system.

For two longstanding emblems of young American fashion, 2019 did not close on a high note. The same day last November that the bankruptcy saga of Barneys New York, famous for supporting and making stars of emerging designers, finally drew to a dismal end, Zac Posen announced that he was shuttering his business. The dual hit didn’t bode well for the state of independent luxury designers, particularly American and particularly of Posen’s peer group.

In 2019 New York’s famous department store Barneys went bankrupt.

In the months since, Opening Ceremony, cofounded by Humberto Leon and Carol Lim in 2002, announced its acquisition by the New Guards Group, the burgeoning Italian streetwear conglomerate behind brands like Off-White and Palm Angels. As part of the deal, Opening Ceremony will be closing its four stores this year, including its Howard Street flagship, which for years was the epicenter of cool, downtown, experimental fashion.

Call them the post-9/11 generation, or the early days CFDA/Vogue Fashion Funders, or the pre-recession designers. Posen, who burst on the scene as a 20-year-old wunderkind in 2001, was their forebearer. They include, in no particular order, Proenza Schouler, Derek Lam, Alexander Wang, Joseph Altuzarra, Phillip Lim, Jason Wu, Thakoon Panichgul and a handful of others. They launched their businesses at a time when the appetite was high for new designer starlets, when the pre-recession industry was hungry for new talent and the press had a 24-hour media opportunity to publicize them to the hilt. Big profiles were built. Businesses grew. Investors and European brands came calling. Who would be the new Calvin Klein, the new Ralph Lauren, the new Marc Jacobs?

Left: Dress RODARTE and boots ALTUZARRA. Right: Shirt 3.1 PHILLIP LIM and shoes PROENZA SCHOULER. Photographed by Kava Gorna In New York for Achtung Mode Nr. 34.

Along the way, there has been a tectonic shift in the industry that’s chalked up to the cumulative upheaval caused by the Internet, social media, direct-to-consumer commerce, and the rise of luxury mega-brands, streetwear and the resale market that has left many in the pre-recession designer generation reeling in its wake. The standard business formula of yore (as early as five to ten years ago)—start with ready-to-wear wholesale followed by handbags and shoes, open a few stores, launch a fragrance—no longer applies. Not to mention that the whole fashion ecosystem—has been disrupted as magazine editors and retailers have dropped like flies.

“Is there even the option to be the next Ralph, Calvin, Donna, even Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors?”, asks Robert Burke, chairman and CEO of luxury consulting firm Robert Burke Associates. “We haven’t seen anything in 20 years that I can think of. Maybe it’s just different.”

Neon yellow flowing satin dress POLO RALPH LAUREN photographed by Christian Werner in Bonn for Achtung Mode Nr. 37.

In that case, it’s not only pointless for these designers to hang onto that vision board, it’s also extremely detrimental to their business. How do they stay in the game and what are the new rules?

No one seems to have the answer, but the feeling of frustration and stuckness that drove brands like Proenza, Rodarte and Joseph Altuzarra to try showing in Paris for a few seasons, and Wang to go off calendar completely persists. The past two seasons or so it’s crystalized into something more urgently Darwinian. New York Fashion Week feels increasingly like a ghost town and an echo chamber.

There are still plenty of wealthy people out there looking to buy luxury goods. But what they want has not been what some of these people have been producing. The Kering- and LVMH-owned mega brands have captivated huge market shares and they’re only getting bigger. Competing via the runway is becoming more and more difficult for smaller brands.

The models taking the stage at the Marc Jacobs Fall/Winter 2020 show.

To that end, Phillip Lim announced that he would not show during New York Fashion Week’s fall/winter 2020 season. He and his CEO Wen Zhou have acknowledged that the business is challenging. Rather than stay on the hamster wheel, they’re taking a moment to step back to think creatively rather than reactively.

When all of these designers started, they were driven by the desire to design and be creative. Unfortunately, good design is difficult to maintain at the breakneck pace fashion has come to. And now there’s so much more of it. It’s astonishing the amount of brands that have popped up, eating away the overall pie while constantly moving the needle. Not to mention that global priorities have shifted. It’s impossible to ignore the amount of stuff fashion outputs every two to three months and how out of sync it can feel with the climate crisis. Sustainability is top of mind inside and outside of fashion, yet many of the smaller American brands have lagged behind building it into their brand values and taking a stand.

There’s so much good design out there, it feels like it’s not enough to just make beautiful things. People want a story and value system to buy into.

Look at Stella McCartney, Fenty or the roster of gold standard direct-to-consumer brands, including Warby Parker, Everlane and Reformation. Reformation’s surface-level image is affordable, cute clothes for the thinking girl who wants to look hot, but its reason for being is style with a purpose. A lot of people are attracted to the brand because it looks good, but they also like its commitment to being eco-friendly and sustainable. Reformation is also not a luxury brand and has never adhered to the fashion system that engulfed the rising stars out of Parsons and dangled the dream of becoming the next Calvin or Ralph in front of them.

Gold-coloured down jacket CALVIN KLEIN photographed by Eva Baales in Berlin for Achtung Mode Nr. 32.

Sad though it sounds, marketing is more crucial than ever but it costs and requires a ton of resources that are hard to allot when budgets are slashed, staff is maxed out and the top focal points are designing and producing the collection and putting together a runway show. Telling the brand story has to be central to the point that every action taken, every category launched ties back to the story. Luxury consultant and former Barneys fashion director Julie Gilhart mentions Kerby Jean Raymond of Pyer Moss as an example of someone new who’s veering from the system and seeing success. To a great extent, his story and his personal brand is bigger than Pyer Moss’. She thinks that’s quite essential nowadays, telling younger clients to build their brand first because it might not be clothes that are making the sales down the line.

Lisa Frank, a partner in Derris communications which reps Reformation, Warby Parker and Everlane, says one of the big mistakes many traditional brands make is seeing their direct to consumer channels as just that, a channel or a side project. As in social media it is a collection of random mood images and the ecommerce site is generic and maybe doesn’t have great customer service. “We’ve had some of those bigger traditional wholesale brands pumped up and wanting help,” said Frank. “We can come up with ideas and positioning but if it’s left to the side, it doesn’t make enough impact to change anything.”

Behind the scenes at the Proenza Schouler S/S 2020 show.

It all costs money, which seems to be in short supply in the American fashion scene, although it always came with strings attached. One of the biggest challenges for designers from this era was taking in big, outside investment, especially from private equity companies looking for exponential growth in too short of time. It can put too much pressure on the designers and logistically ends up not working out in their favor. A prime example is Proenza Schouler’s Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, who bought out private equity firm Castanea Partners’ majority stake in their label and installed the new CEO Kay Hong in 2018. They’ve been committed to bouncing back from what sounds like a period of internal chaos that could be felt in their collections.

We’re all rooting for them. In many ways they are true New York designers, who have always prized design over everything else. Let’s hope in some cases great design is still enough.

This article first appeared in Achtung Mode Nr. 39 (April 2020).